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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Some talking, but mostly smoking

By GUY DIXON
Globe and Mail
Thursday, Sep. 11, 2003

All the elements are there in the hotel room commandeered for Benicio Del Toro's interview.There is a paper plate with cigarette butts he'd smoked in rapid succession. Coffee, which he is said to drink like water, is brought up by room service. The cheap green cap that other interviewers have noticed for months. The hair. Most people go through life with one head of hair. Del Toro has two or three layers piled one on top of the other.

A cheap, layman's analysis of the guy could swing either way. He's either an iconoclastic genius, method-acting the life of a Puerto Rican-bred, Hollywood-embraced movie star, playing the Brando-esque, swaggering celebrity role expected of him as he makes the rounds of film festivals to plug his latest film 21 Grams. Or he couldn't really care less. He'd go with the latter.

"If they have expectations for me to behave some way, or dress some way, or look some way, you know, I couldn't give a damn about that." He lengthens "damn" in a slow drawl.

But he has a moral code about not turning down fans. He takes his time to sign autographs. As a kid, he used to collect autographs of basketball players.

But then there are the propositions, like in an Esquire magazine article earlier this year which caught Del Toro in the wilds, that is, on Beale Street in Memphis, where 21 Grams was shot, and where a man leaned out of a restaurant door saying there was a girl inside who "will do anything with you that is illegal in 50 states," as Del Toro retells it in the Toronto hotel room.

"When you read it, you read it, like Oh My God, but stranger things happen," he says.

The day of his interviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, like the day before, and probably the day before that, he seems in a perpetual sleep. He rubs the bags of skin around the slits of his eyes. He stammers and squints, but he also has a goofy, chipmunk smile that no one seems to mention, which comes unexpectedly as his sentences fall away.

But then his much discussed bleariness creeps back, especially when asked to analyze his roles.

"I tend to connect with all of them, but you know -- you, you know -- you," he pauses. "There are some that," he pauses again. He continued on about liking to play the hero, but he sees heroes even in his bad-guy parts, as in 21 Grams. But it's just talk, he really seems to be saying.

He jabs a finger into the top of his other hand resting on the table. He indicates a point by flipping an unlit cigarette in and around his mouth. Even a tape recorder placed at arms' length in a near silent hotel room can't pick up every word. All the elements keep piling up.

So why bother forcing it? It's a given that Del Toro has played some of film's most engaging characters over the past decade. Why analyze the obvious? Talk instead about his obvious love for basketball (he played in high school in Pennsylvania after his father moved the family there when Del Toro was in his early teens), music (he describes it as his cold shower after a day shooting the emotionally charged 21 Grams; but then there's the strange picture of a big guy like Del Toro digging his current favourite, old-timers the Kingston Trio), or his interest in, yet trepidation about, directing films himself (he recently made a short).

"You take a guy like Steven Soderbergh [who directed Del Toro in his Academy Award-winning performance in Traffic]. I think he could do a movie almost without a script. You could put him anywhere, and he could do a movie as a director. I don't think I could even come close to that," he says.

The previous day at a press conference, Del Toro wore a de rigueur dark designer suit with an open shirt. He made a show for 21 Grams co-star Naomi Watts sitting next to him of having to do up a couple of his shirt buttons when the photographers started snapping.

But during the one on one, he's back in form with what looked like a blue sweatshirt -- maybe a designer T-shirt, who knows? -- with a blue suit and the green cap. He seems conversely greyer and younger in person.

It's not far off, however, from how he looks in 21 Grams, a detailed, plot-driven film about death and self-destruction centred around Sean Penn's lead character, a critically ill math professor, and Watts, a Middle-American mom struggling with a drug past. Del Toro enters their lives out of left field as a violent, born-again ex-con.

Del Toro is the bad guy, not necessarily by choice. Not by Del Toro's choice or the character's. Typically, there's a lot of turmoil just below the surface in his parts, from his good cop in Traffic to the mumbling criminal who stole the show in his breakthrough film, 1995's The Usual Suspects -- maybe even in his bit part as Duke the Dog-FacedBoy in the 1988 Pee-wee Herman vehicle Big Top Pee-Wee.

Just don't ask him to explain this tendency toward introversion. He'll always come back to the surface details. The rest is somehow beyond words. And for someone known not to enjoy interviews much, words seem beyond the point. Better to stub out your cigarette, down your coffee, and move on to the next thing. "Good luck, buddy," he says a couple of times, as he towers over the publicists.



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